Each morning, energy from the sun awakens solar power plants of all sizes and sets them to work— switching them on, it seems, in a matter of moments, almost automatically. But tracking and reporting on the performance of these projects is much more complex, consuming large amounts of time and money.
To cut costs, the industry wide Orange Button Initiative has begun cataloging the data needed for solar project development and performance reporting, including details about the project site, permits, equipment, and financing, with about 4,200 data fields and more to come. Led by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), SunSpec Alliance, kWh Analytics and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the initiative released the first version of the Orange Button data taxonomy, or set of standards, on April 19.
Orange Button 1.0 is a digital dictionary of terms structured to be user friendly and intuitive, following the path of how data is actually used in solar project development. The initial release focuses on solar project financing, including data to monitor a project’s financial health. More concepts used in project construction and operation and management (O&M), such as second-by-second performance data, may be added in future releases.
Using the Orange Button taxonomy, asset managers can reduce the amount of time and money spent gathering and sharing project data. Project developers and financiers can also collect data more efficiently.
Solar project reporting
Asset managers must satisfy a variety of parties with solar project data. Investors want to know about the return on investment for their project portfolios. Off-takers want to ensure the adequacy of their energy supply. Regulatory agencies keep a watchful eye on regional and national power generation. Administrators of renewable energy credits and performance-based incentives must verify output before compensating energy producers.
Project reporting is vital, but nobody wants it to drive up operations and maintenance costs. Higher O&M costs drive up the cost of energy and diminish the return on investment. Unfortunately, asset managers are contending with inefficiencies that inflate costs, due to a lack of uniform data standards. The result is that many involved in the solar project lifecycle receive data in different formats.
And even if a compatible format is used, the metadata may not be the same. For example, one dataset might tag revenues in units of thousands of U.S. dollars while another uses million-dollar units. Likewise, one dataset might tag photovoltaic (PV) solar system capacity in units of kilowatts while another tags capacity in megawatts.
At the 2018 Orange Button Developer’s Conference in Cupertino, Calif., the director of PV plant performance at 8minutenergy Renewables, Leigh Zanone, said it can take 200 staff-hours to analyze files from equipment suppliers, EPC contractors, finance providers and other sources. This information must then be distilled into a standard database of key parameters required for quarterly reports. When legal document review is required, some of the analysis must be done by licensed attorneys.
“We would much rather use a standard data taxonomy than pay a lawyer $300 to $700 an hour to pull out the information that I need,” Zanone said.
Asset managers aren’t the only ones absorbing high costs for data collection costs. John Previtali, vice president of environmental finance at Wells Fargo, told attendees at the Orange Button Developer’s Conference that his group recently spent about $150,000 assessing solar and wind projects.
“About $75,000 of that was just getting the data together,” Previtali said.
Such costs can multiply as different asset managers and investors need to manually enter — and possibly re-enter – data as project information passes from one company database to another.
Orange Button data standard
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy kicked off the Orange Button Initiative with funding to create a data exchange that covers the solar value chain from project origination to decommissioning.
Thus far, under SEPA and SunSpec’s leadership, the initiative has classified and defined terms for the Orange Button data standard. To promote Orange Button adoption, kWh Analytics is building tools to translate legacy solar data into a standard format. And NREL is developing a comprehensive solar data catalog with easy access to common data standards.
The Orange Button Developer’s Conference created a forum for software professionals to share ideas about further development of the Orange Button data standard and explore use cases for companies that adopt the standard. Developers are continuing the conversation on a Slack channel hosted by kWh Analytics software engineer Katherine Elliott, accessible at bitly.com/ OrangeButtonSlack.
In the months ahead, an Orange Button working group will set the agenda for a development plan for a second version of the data standard, to be delivered next year. SunSpec Alliance will also develop a training curriculum to help the solar industry understand what’s in the data standard and how to make the most of it.
Data standards have the potential to vastly reduce costs for asset managers and all project stakeholders, but only if they achieve widespread adoption.